France's Sugar Beet Crop Devastated by Disease - Sugar Industry's Viability Threatened
18.08.2020 15:45 "Agro Perspectiva" (Kyiv) —
Following are selected highlights from a report issued by a U. S. Department of Agriculture attache in The Paris (France), France is the largest producer of sugar beets in Europe growing just over 30 percent of EU27+UK ‘s production in MY 2019/2020. Ban on the use of neonics since 2018 has resulted in large scale crop
losses this growing season because of widespread yellows virus, a disease spread by aphids that infested much of the crop this year. Because of the infestation in addition to the drought, French experts estimate that the yield will be down by 30 to 50 percent.
France is the largest producer of sugar beets in Europe growing just over 30 percent of EU27+UK ‘s production in MY 2019/2020. The history of sugar production in France goes back over 200 years. The industrial extraction of sugar from sugar beet was developed by French inventor Jean-Baptiste Quéruel in 1812 because of the necessity to replace cane sugar. France’s supplier of sugar cane, the West Indies, could not ship to France as a result of Napoleon’s war against Great Britain and the British blockades on cane sugar.
About 26,000 farmers cultivate sugar beets in France. The area planted to sugar beet that had been limited by production quotas until 2017, has increased sharply in the past few years. France benefits from a climate and soil suited to sugar beet production.
Five French enterprises (three companies and two cooperatives) produce sugar from sugar beet in 25 processing plants. The French sugar industry employs 6,700 workers directly and almost 12,000 people are employed in other sectors related to the sugar production, from seed distribution, agricultural equipment to transport and distribution. The largest French sugar enterprise, the cooperative Tereos, is the second largest sugar company in the world with global sales of ˆ25 billion ($29.5 billion) in 2019.
France exports 2.5 million MT worth $1.1 billion of sugar per year on average. However, the drop in sugar price reduced French exports value to $961 million in CY 2019. As France only imports 300,000 MT of cane sugar valued on average at $250 million, France has a large sugar trade surplus. Eighty-seven percent of France’s sugar exports are destined to other EU+UK countries including Spain, Italy, Belgium, as well as the UK. The largest non-EU customers are Israel, Egypt, Switzerland and African countries such as Ghana. It imports transshipped cane sugar from other countries in the EU, primarily from the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, as well as from Mauritius and Brazil.
A pesticide ban threatens the sector
In 2016, France adopted a law aiming at increasing biodiversity. Among the various articles, one set a complete prohibition (see Gain report FR1612) of neonicotinoids (neonics) insecticide use by 2018. Neonics are efficient insecticides developed in the 1980s from nicotine, the chemical naturally present in tobacco. The EU and France banned their use in part because they believe neonics are harmful to pollinators such as bees when improperly used. The bill was presented by Junior Secretary for Biodiversity at the time, Barbara Pompili, who is currently France’s Minister of Ecology. During the parliamentary discussion, many experts spoke on the risk of a total ban of neonics to the agricultural sector due to the absence of viable alternatives. Outspoken critics of the bill
included Minister of Agriculture at the time Stéphane Le Foll, but in spite of concerns the law passed, and in September 2018, sales of neonics were prohibited in France. While neonics are also banned in the EU for outdoor use (they are permitted in greenhouses) fifteen EU member states have been granted exceptions,
allowing the insecticide to be used. One of the arguments used to justify their use on beets is that that the treatment is only on the seeds and sugar beets are harvested before flowering, thus do not present a risk to bees. In addition, alternatives to neoicotinoids are scarce, not as efficient and require aerial spraying which is considered by most scientists to be more harmful to pollinators.
Before the ban in 2018, neonics were widely used for sugar beet seeds as coating on the seeds. Already in 2019, a significant decline was reported to the sugar beet yield. In 2020 France’s mild spring led to an aphid infestation on young sugar beet plants. Aphids spread many diseases including viruses such as the beet yellows virus (BYV) which leads to beet dwarf jaundice, a disease that can cut yields by half. Because of the infestation in addition to the drought, French experts estimate that the yield will be down by 30 to 50 percent.